China by Edward Rutherfurd

I loved this! It’s been a long time since Edward Rutherfurd’s last novel was published (Paris in 2013), but China is so good I think it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s slightly different from his earlier novels – all of which I have read and enjoyed – because whereas those previous books follow the history of a country, city or region over a period of many centuries, this one covers a much shorter period, telling the story of China in the 19th century. At nearly 800 pages, that decision to concentrate only on one century allows for more character development and more time spent exploring each historical event or incident in detail.

Beginning in 1839, the first few sections of the novel deal with the First Opium War, taking us through the complicated background to this conflict from the perspectives of several different characters: Shi-Rong, secretary to Commissioner Lin, the man responsible for trying to end the illegal import of opium into China; John Trader, a British merchant who has become involved in the opium trade to improve his financial situation so that he can marry the woman he loves; Nio, a Chinese pirate and opium smuggler; and John’s cousin Cecil Whiteparish, who is a missionary. This range of viewpoints helps to build a full picture of the events leading to the Opium Wars and what happens in the aftermath. These characters and their families appear again and again throughout the novel as the years go by and they are drawn into other key events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.

In a novel of this length, it was inevitable that I would find some parts much more interesting than others – for example, the chapters involving Nio’s adopted sister Mei-Ling who makes the decision to have her little girl’s feet bound while her husband is in America working on the railroads were particularly compelling. However, my favourite sections of the book were those narrated by ‘Lacquer Nail’, a eunuch in the service of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I’m not sure whether it’s because Lacquer Nail is the only character whose story is told in the first person instead of third, but he really comes to life in a way that some of the others don’t. I could have read a whole book about his adventures alone.

Like all of Rutherfurd’s novels, this one is clearly the result of a huge amount of research; as well as the coverage of major political and military events, we are given lots of fascinating little snippets of information on Chinese folklore, crafts such as calligraphy and pottery, and the details of the tea ritual and other traditions. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the various locations in which the action takes place, including Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, Macao and, in Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. I think anyone with even the slightest curiosity about China, its history, geography and people, will find a lot to interest them in this book – just be aware that it’s quite a commitment and will take a while to get through, even for the fastest of readers!

If China doesn’t appeal, I can highly recommend almost any of Edward Rutherfurd’s other books, particularly Sarum, Russka and his two novels about Ireland.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 27/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

18 thoughts on “China by Edward Rutherfurd

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting! I’ve only heard good things about this author. I’ve just read two books on the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion so would probably love this book. 800 pages though!! Now that’s something to get your teeth into [grin]

    • Helen says:

      I’ve loved nearly all of his books, but I’m sure you would find this one particularly fascinating if you’ve just been reading about some of the history. It did take me a long time to get through the 800 pages, but I think it was worth it!

  2. setinthepast says:

    I’ve read all Edward Rutherfurd’s books and have had this on my Amazon wishlist ever since I heard it was coming out 🙂 , but for some reason I thought it wasn’t being released until October! I shall have a look! So it only starts with the Opium Wars? I did wonder how he was going to squash the history of China into one book!

    • Helen says:

      It was published in early May but has taken me weeks to read it! I was a bit disappointed when I realised that it covered such a short period of China’s history, but I ended up enjoying it more than his last few books.

  3. Davida Chazan says:

    Yes, well… Rutherfurd does like to pack a whole lot into his books, and doesn’t spare the pages while doing so. I enjoyed Paris but… these huge books are very daunting.

    • Helen says:

      I never used to be daunted by long books, but I don’t think I have as much patience with them now. Still, I did really enjoy this one!

  4. whatmeread says:

    Hmm, I read a few Edward Rutherford novels years ago when he was just getting started and wasn’t that impressed by them. I thought I might try him again since it’s been so long. However, the ones you mentioned in your last paragraph were the ones I didn’t like, so I guess I’ll leave him alone for now.

    • Helen says:

      Well, this one feels quite different from his others as it covers a shorter period and sticks with the same characters throughout the entire book. But I think Sarum is usually regarded as his best book, so if you didn’t like that one maybe you won’t like any of them.

  5. BookerTalk says:

    I read and enjoyed Sarum years ago but haven’t gone back to Rutherford – I think it was the size of the books that put me off plus the fact that in covering such a long period of time, there were parts that felt skipped over. The focus on a single century sounds like a smart decision.

    I think I’ll try and get this on audio

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed the structure of Rutherfurd’s earlier books because I felt they gave a good overview of a country or city’s entire history, but that did mean a lot had to be missed out or skimmed over very quickly. The shorter time period in this one lets him go into more depth.

  6. Lexlingua says:

    I didn’t know Rutherford had a version for China too. I’ve read his Russka, and he made the history of Russia so accessible, so interesting, I loved it. Thanks for reviewing this.

  7. JaneGS says:

    I’m also a Rutherford fan and have read most of them, and some of them multiple times. I definitely want to read this, but I am disappointed to hear that it focuses on the 19th century only. I really prefer the books that reach back into the mists of time and bring us into the modern world. I want to know more about China and modern China, so I will read this.

    • Helen says:

      I love the structure of his earlier books and the way they span such huge time periods. I was disappointed too when I found that this one only covers one century, but it’s a great book anyway and I would definitely recommend it if you’ve enjoyed his others.

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